The Children's Story of the War
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The Battle of The Lys River
In former chapters I have told you the story of the great German offensive which began on March 21, 1918, and by 5th April, little more than a fortnight later, had come to a standstill. You will remember that the Germans struck their first mighty blow on a fifty-mile front between the Scarpe and the Oise, with the object of separating the British and French armies, and of opening the road to Paris. They failed to thrust in a wedge along the Oise, but succeeded in making a breach in the line of our Fifth Army in front of St Quentin. Then followed a rapid and very costly retirement ; but, as in the case of the break-through in North Italy, the enemy did not succeed in his main object. During the retirement a wall of reserves was built up against him, and though he came dangerously near to the main railway from Amiens to Paris his efforts proved vain. Thanks to some of the most dogged fighting known to history, the Allies were able to retain their hold on the railway, and to bar the way to the French capital.
Foiled between the Scarpe and the Oise, the enemy struck his second great blow between the La Bassee Canal and Ypres. As you read the story which I am about to tell, you will find well-known names of towns and villages cropping up again. You will hear of places which figured in the first and second years of the war, but had long since passed into what we believed to be our permanent possession. You will also hear of other places which have never been for long out of our narrative. It is a story of the direst peril a peril far greater than that which we had to face south of the Somme.
Between Arras and the Oise we had room to bend for a considerable distance without gravely endangering the unity of our line, but it was quite otherwise when the blow fell to the north of the La Bassee Canal. Look at the map, and notice that behind our front from Givenchy to Ypres we had only a narrow strip of country. Ypres is less than thirty miles from Dunkirk, and only about fifty miles from Calais. Further, this narrow strip of country was of the highest importance to us, because it contained the railways which enabled us to maintain communication with the coast, and therefore with England. In the small towns between our front and the sea we had established hospitals, rest camps, training schools, repair stations, stores, and offices. You can easily understand that an enemy advance of seven miles north of La Bassee Canal would be far more serious to us than an advance of double that distance south of Amiens.
Now, what was the object of this new offensive ? The enemy hoped to capture Bethune on the first day, and soon afterwards the important railway junction of Hazebrouck. He meant to advance so rapidly that before our reserves could come up he would have overrun the country right up to the sea. Had he done this our plight would have been terrible indeed. Pressed back to the sea, we should have had no room to build up our line anew, as we had done further south, and the enemy might have achieved a second Sedan. Wholesale slaughter or wholesale surrender would probably have been our lot.
Suppose, however, the enemy should fail to overrun the coast strip, and yet should capture Hazebrouck and Bethune : what would happen then ? We should have to swing our line westward from Arras as a pivot, and take up the position shown by the dotted line on the map. You will observe that the northern part of our line would then stand along the little river Aa. This river flows through a marshy valley, which would afford us an even better line of defence than the Yser. Were we forced to retire to the Aa, we should have to give up Ypres and all the country between the ruins of the old city and the river. This would mean that the Belgians would have to withdraw, and the last few remaining miles of their country would be lost to them. Dunkirk would have to be abandoned, and the enemy would secure a submarine base close to the Straits of Dover. From Dunkirk he could assail Calais with his big guns, and make it impossible as a cross-Channel port. We should only have in our rear a very narrow margin of country in which to manoeuvre. Around Arras a salient would be created which might be deduced before we were firmly established on our new line. To make a long story short, our retirement to the Aa would mean disaster, and would probably be the beginning of the end.
Before I describe the offensive which began on the morning of 9th April, let us follow the Allied line as it stood before the guns began to thunder on that day. From the La Bassee Canal it struck north in front of Givenchy and Festubert names of great battle renown across the dead, marshy flats of the Lys valley. It crossed the Lys to the east of Armentieres, and continued north in front of Plug Street Wood and the Messines Ridge to Hollebeke, from which place it ran along the high ground to Passchendaele. Thence it bent westward along the western edge of Houthulst Forest to Merckem and so on, by way of the Yser, to the Channel.
The left wing of our First Army held the ground on both sides of L the La Bassee Canal. Between Neuve Chapelle thevillage so dearly won in March 1915 and Laventie, our ancient allies, the Portuguese, manned the trenches. Beyond them, as far north as Merckem, the line was entrusted to Plumer's Second Army. The Belgians, as of old, faced the enemy from Merckem to the sea.
There is good reason to believe that the attack which was now about to begin had been planned as part of the great offensive launched on 21st March. On the day when the Germans, according to their time-table, were to be in Amiens, the blow north of the La Bassee Canal was to be struck. With Amiens in their hands, they would have cut us off from the French ; and with the line of the Lys in their possession, they would be able to turn their big guns on the flanks of our troops lying between the Somme and the northern river. Happily, however, the enemy failed to secure Amiens, and the northern attack which I am about to describe became a separate venture. It was entrusted to the Fourth and Sixth German Armies the former, which was to strike north of the Lys, being commanded by General Sixt von Armin ; while the latter, which was deployed along the front between Armentieres and Givenchy, was led by General von Quast. You will remember that on 21st March the blow was struck near the junction of the British and French armies. On 9th April the Germans made their chief efforts against the Portuguese and the British troops who linked up with them on their right and on their left. You already know that military men usually consider that the weakest part of an Allied line is where the flanks of the different armies come into touch with each other.
In the early morning of 9th April a thick mist hung over the whole of the Lys valley. So dense was it that none of our aeroplanes could ascend to spy out the movements of the enemy. Prisoners afterwards said that their weather prophets had foretold long in advance a misty morning, and that the offensive was timed to take place when Nature would be likely to conceal their onset. About four in the morning a terrific bombardment was directed against the 17,000 yards of front between La Bassee Canal and Armentieres, the full weight of it falling upon the Portuguese lines, which, you will remember, lay across the marshy flats at the foot of the Aubers Ridge, in front of Lille. Over sixty thousand shells were hurled upon our defences, and upon towns and villages far in the rear. Bethune, Armentieres, and Estaires, on the Lys, were all heavily assailed, and the countryside was thickly strewn with gas shells, which created a poisonous zone, in which men and animals could not live without respirators.
From 4 to 5 a.m. the Portuguese lines were pounded until they were smashed to atoms, and at the latter hour six divisions were launched against the sorely-tried defenders. It is said that General Hofer led the attack in person, marching in front of his men and brandishing a walking-stick with his one arm. The Portuguese fought very gallantly, but they could not stand against the horde of Germans that swooped down upon them in the mist. At several points the enemy had not only cut the wire, but had crept round the advanced positions before they were seen. The Portuguese, under the tremendous weight of the attack, were obliged to fall back to their second position, where they were furiously attacked between six and seven o'clock. Again, they made a stubborn stand against the fiercest machine-gun fire and streams of blazing oil from flamethrowers. Their artillerymen served the guns up to the last possible moment, then destroyed the breech blocks and attempted to escape. Few of them regained their comrades ; the Portuguese losses were heavy indeed.
Before I describe the consequences of this break-through, let me remind you of the character of the country across which the Germans were now advancing. From Lille to Armentieres stretches the mining region of Pas de Calais. The country is as flat as the palm of your hand ; everywhere it is seamed with ditches and criss-crossed by canals. The roads are lined with houses ; factory chimneys and the headgear of collieries rise everywhere ; and the whole district resembles the industrial parts of Lancashire or the West Riding of Yorkshire. The Lys, black and foul, flows through this ill-favoured land. Between the Aubers Ridge and this stream there is no natural obstacle to an enemy's advance, and the Lys itself is not difficult to cross.
When, therefore, the Portuguese line was broken there was nothing but the naked valour of our men to delay the enemy until the Lys was reached. British troops were hurried up to form a line behind the discomfited Portuguese, and a cyclist company of 350 men played a heroic part in checking the enemy while a defensive line was formed in the rear. Elsewhere parties of our men made a most gallant stand, and in many places fought to the death ; but do what they might, they could not hold back the enemy waves that flowed around and over them. By evening the Lys had been reached between Estaires* and Bac St. Maur, and a crossing had been made in several places. Before night fell almost the whole of the marshy country between our broken line and the river was in the hands of the enemy.
Northumberland Fusiliers, East Yorks, and Durham Light Infantry had been sent up to defend Estaires. The place was smothered with shell-fire, and the enemy, rushing across a swing-bridge, gained a footing in the western part of the town. Our men charged down the streets, and created a No Man's Land for fifty yards beyond the bridgehead, which they covered with their machine guns. When, however, the enemy crossed the river higher up towards Armentieres, they had to abandon the place.
A story is told of some Durhams who were holding a position on the Lys Canal in front of Estaires and were cut off. In the dusk a German officer with some men stood up on the canal bank and shouted to them, " Are you English ? ' ' We are," replied a young sentry of the Durhams. " Are you wounded ? " asked the German. " Not all of us," said the Durham. " Then surrender," shouted the German ; but this time he was answered by a rifle shot. Forty men came out of houses along the riverside, and a sergeant of the Durhams, who thought they were Portuguese, called upon them to join him. He went forward to meet them, and was taken prisoner ; but our men poured fierce rifle-fire into the advancing enemy. " We killed a good few of them," said one of the Durhams ; " but there were always more to come, and our little party had to fall back a bit to escape being captured."
Royal Scots, Scottish Fusiliers, and Gordons who were sent up to strengthen the line in front of Estaires and Laventie were furiously assailed by machine guns in great number, and at the same time were bombed by German aeroplanes, which flew low over their heads with a great roar of engines and a rush of air. In all parts of the line there was the same story to tell our men were engaged in stubbornly checking the hordes of Germans, but were being overborne by their onward sweep.
Meanwhile, what was happening at Givenchy and Festubert ? You will remember that these villages had to be carried before the Germans could advance along the line of the canal and seize Bethune, which they hoped to reach on the first day of the offensive. On this old, blood-sodden battle-ground the 55th (Lancashire) Division made a most heroic stand, and played the part of Byng's army in holding the Arras front during the great assault which began on 21st March. The Lancashire men were outnumbered by four to one, but they refused to give way when the troops on their left retired and formed a defensive flank in that direction. The Germans came on in dense masses. Three times, at least, they broke into Givenchy once during the day and twice during the evening and night but each time they were flung out again by determined counter-attacks. In the course of these attacks 750 German prisoners were taken. On the morning of the 10th, Givenchy and almost the whole of our original line in this district remained intact.
Liverpool men held out nobly in what was known as the ' Death or Glory " sap, and in a similar position further north, where they repulsed every attack made upon them. Mr. Philip Gibbs says :
" The machine gunners of the Liverpools are wonderful fellows, and on the first day at Givenchy, when their guns were knocked out and buried by shell-fire, they dug them up again and served them again. Meanwhile their comrades with bombs and revolvers held off the enemy. A sergeant of their division served a field gun until the enemy was close upon him, and fired 200 rounds at between six hundred and two hundred yards into the waves of Germans. The trail of his gun was broken by a shell-burst, and the breech block was so injured that between each round he had to prise it open with a pickaxe. At last, when the enemy was about to rush him, he destroyed his gun and escaped."
Several times when the enemy broke in at Givenchy the Liverpools worked round them and cut them off. In one trip of this kind they rounded up 300 Germans. They were helped in these manoeuvres by their intimate acquaintance with the maze of trenches, which they knew as well as the back streets of their own towns. They crept down alleyways and round corners, and again and again surprised and cut off the enemy. A curious incident happened in one trench. A staff officer with his orderly was going along it when he suddenly encountered an enemy officer. He ordered the German to surrender, and at this moment an enemy private behind raised his rifle to fire. " Tell that man to surrender," said the British officer, and the German immediately gave the order. At once fifty men came in sight with their hands up.
In another place a party of Germans, concealed by the fog, had entered one of our communication trenches. When they were discovered one of our officers said to his men, " Now, boys, get your bombs ready and shout." The rest of the story is told by a man in his company. ' We did shout. Then these Johnnies put up their hands and said, ' Kamerad,' just as you read in t' picture papers; and I took ten of 'em, though I'm only nineteen."
Another party of Lancashire men, creeping round by a trench, surprised an Austrian officer who was observing for the artillery with a very fine periscope. He and two telephonists refused to surrender, and were killed. His periscope was handed over to our gunners, and proved to be very useful. Amongst other prisoners who were taken was a commander whose pockets were bulging with biscuits looted from one of our abandoned canteens.
Despite the splendid defence of Givenchy the situation was now grave indeed. The Germans were swarming towards the Lys, and in some places had crossed it. They had again surprised us, and had won a rapid and perhaps unexpected success. You may wonder how it was that we were caught napping a second time. The fact was that the German High Command was now working on a new plan. Behind their lines they had an excellent railway system, which enabled them to concentrate very rapidly at any point of the line. With great secrecy they marched their troops to certain points by night, and then on the eve of the attack hurried them forward by train, bringing them on to the field in relays, one behind the other, during the progress of the battle. It is no easy matter in these days of aeroplanes to conceal the movements of large masses of men ; but the enemy, thanks mainly to the splendid railways behind his lines, managed to concentrate unobserved in places from which he could rapidly convey his men to the north or the south.
The German plan of campaign now appeared to be somewhat as follows. Blows were to be struck, one after the other, at all parts of the Allied line, in the hope that at some point or other it would be breached. If a success was won, fresh troops were to be hurried to the spot, and every effort was to be made to take advantage of the opening thus created. In this way the enemy hoped to smash our lines before our reserves could be brought up. He knew that he had only about five months in which he could hope for victory. If he could win a decisive success in that time he would be saved. If, on the contrary, the Allies could hold him off until the autumn, the rapidly-arriving American armies would turn the scale against him. General Foch knew that the next five months would be full of peril, and that the courage and endurance of his troops would be tried to the uttermost. The fate of France and Britain, and the future of the whole world, depended upon their capacity to hold out during the summer.
The situation at the close of the first day's fighting may thus be summed up. British and Portuguese forces had been driven back between Armentieres and La Bassee on a front of nearly ten miles. The Germans had heavily shelled the Allied lines in this area for some days, and in a thick mist had advanced to the attack. Our lines were first pierced in front of the Aubers Ridge, and the Germans pushed through towards the river Lys. On the flanks of the attack about Fleurbaix and Givenchy the British line held ; but in the centre the enemy extended his -earlier gains, and by evening Portuguese and British troops were holding the line of the river between Estaires arid Bac St. Maur, three and a half miles from their positions at the opening of the fight. During the operations of the day the Germans claimed to have captured 6,000 prisoners and about a hundred guns.
In Chapter XXIII. I told you that on 9th April the Germans struck their second great blow at the Allied lines. On this occasion they attacked from the La Bassee Canal to Ypres. You will remember that they won what I called an unexpected success. They broke through the Portuguese defence, and by the close of the day had reached the Lys, and were on the flank of our line running northward from that river to the shores of the North Sea. A French writer tells us that the second blow was struck because the Battle of Picardy had resulted in a check. He also points out that the Lys offensive was on a much smaller scale than the Picardy effort. For his blow south of Arras the enemy made preparations which extended over two months, and earmarked seventy-five divisions for the purpose. For the Lys offensive he only occupied ten days in preparation, and did not use more than twenty-five divisions. The French writer supposes that the object of the Lys effort was to make a strong call upon the Allied reserves in the north.
As you know, fortune favoured the attackers, and the breaking of the Portuguese line enabled them to win an important success which might have proved decisive. We were saved from disaster at three points. Our Lancashire troops defended Givenchy magnificently, and this glorious stand enabled us to retain the main railway by which reinforcements and supplies could come up from the south. Then, too, Fleurbaix, which covered the crossing of the Lys near Armentieres, was held for most of the first day, and thus the enemy was prevented from making rapid headway to the north of that place. Finally, when the enemy crossed the Lys north of Armentieres he found himself up against Messines Ridge, which checked his progress.
Now let me continue the story of the battle. On 10th April, while severe fighting continued along the line of the Lys and its tributary the Lawe, the enemy, early in the morning, when again a thick mist covered the battlefield, opened a heavy bombardment of our positions from the north of Armentieres to the Ypres-Comines Canal. Our troops, greatly outnumbered, were forced back to the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge, and meanwhile had to give ground along the Lys Canal south of Armentieres. As they retired they blew up the bridges behind them, and destroyed the railway bridge at Armentieres. That gay little town, with its bright little restaurants and teashops, now became a No Man's Land. The enemy smothered it with gas shells until the streets and houses reeked of poisonous vapour. Before midday we were obliged to withdraw from the town, and then we in turn hurled gas shells upon it, and prevented the enemy from occupying it.
Our forces retired from Armentieres northward, and thus a dangerous gap yawned on the left of the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Royal Scots, who were holding the line of the river farther west. There was another gap on their right between them and the men of the Middlesex Regiment, who were clinging to the outer defences of Estaires. Royal Fusiliers, South Wales Borderers, and other troops were hurried up, and the enemy was checked for a space. A trench-mortar company made a specially fine counter-attack at this critical time, and played the part of the cyclist company which had reinforced the centre of the broken Portuguese line on the previous day. Meanwhile, by means of temporary bridges, the enemy had got guns across the Lys in the neighbourhood of Merville.
In the afternoon the battle grew fierce in Flanders, and our line almost up to Gheluvelt was heavily bombarded and constantly attacked. There was bitter fighting round the White Chateau at Hollebeke ; and the enemy, who on the i ith had penetrated Plugstreet Wood after a grim struggle for two days and nights against the Wiltshire, Cheshire, and Staffordshire men who held it, began working north. Messines Ridge was stormed, and Wytschaete village was entered ; but our men, fighting with extraordinary courage, recaptured the place. There was a terrible battle for the village of Neuve Eglise, which stands about three miles east of Bailleul. The place changed hands again and again. Men fought with any kind of weapon, and even with their bare fists. All day and night for the next five days and nights there were constant attacks and counter-attacks amidst the broken walls and ruined houses and beneath the stump of the church tower. Mr. Philip Gibbs tells us that the enemy made four separate attacks upon the village, all of which were beaten back.
" The enemy broke into its ruined streets, and small parties of Wiltshires, Worcesters, and others sprang on them and fought desperately in backyards and over broken walls and in shell-pierced houses, wherever they could find Germans or hear the tattoo of machine guns. Several times the enemy was cleared out of most of the little town, and our men held the hollow square containing most of the streets. They defended it as a kind of fortress, though with dwindling numbers, under a heavy fire of shells and trench mortars and machine guns. The enemy was savage in his attacks against these men ; and, from behind, the German commanding officers sent up fresh troops with stern orders to have done with the business and destroy the British, whom they vastly outnumbered. But they could not take Neuve Eglise by direct assault, and last night (14th April) our troops made a counter-attack at Crucifix Corner, won ground, and brought back five machine guns, and left there many German dead. It was an astounding feat of grim courage. But Neuve Eglise had to be given up. The enemy, unable to get it by infantry assault, shelled it fiercely by the fire of many guns and made it a death-trap, as it now is for them. Without yielding to a direct assault our men obeyed orders, and stumbling out of the place, silently and unknown to the enemy, took up a line farther back."
How desperate the situation now was may be gathered from the special order which Sir Douglas Haig issued to his troops at this time :
' To All Ranks of the British Army in France and Flanders. Three weeks ago to-day the enemy began his terrific attacks against us on a fifty-mile front. His objects are to separate us from the French, to take the Channel ports, and destroy the British Army." In spite of throwing already 106 divisions into the battle, and enduring the most reckless sacrifice of human life, he has as yet made little progress towards his goals. We owe this to the determined fighting and self-sacrifice of our troops.
' Words fail me to express the admiration which I feel for the splendid resistance offered by all ranks of our Army under the most trying circumstances.
" Many of us are now tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support.
" There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man. There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind depend alike upon the conduct of each one of us at the critical moment."
On the 12th the situation was as follows. The enemy's attacks on Messines Ridge were meeting with success. In spite of very heavy losses, he had constantly hurled his troops against this commanding position. After terrible fighting he had reached the village of Messines, but was held up on its outskirts. Everywhere he had failed to carry the main crest, but there was every prospect that he would soon do so. Armentieres had been abandoned, because it was so drenched with gas that no living man could remain in it . The crossings of the Lys and the Lawe Map showing Allied Line from had been carried, and the Nieuport to the Argonne.
Enemy had now reached Merville, where he was seven miles from his starting-point. He was within a short distance of Bailleul, near to which ran the important railway which fed our Messines- Wytschaete front. He was also advancing towards the railway centre of Hazebrouck, and had covered more than half the distance between his old line and that place. He was forming, as you will see from the map, a broad flank to the north of the La Bassee Canal, and was creating a new danger for us. Should he be checked to the west, he would be able to strike south and attempt to drive in a wedge between the British armies to the north of the canal and those to the south of it. The situation was most perilous; but all was not plain sailing for the enemy. He was advancing across flat country, it is true, but everywhere there were canals and watercourses to impede him. So far he had not obtained a footing in the hills ; he still lay on the plain.
During the first three days of the offensive the Germans had the advantage of surprise, and they made serious progress. During the following days their advance slowed down. The Allies were bringing up their reserves, and the enemy was hurrying fresh divisions northward in order to make good the unexpected success which he had won. Before these fresh divisions could arrive, we had strengthened our line and had stemmed the torrent. The enemy succeeded in getting a little nearer Bethune, but he could make no headway in the direction of Bailleul, and the Messines Ridge, though gravely threatened, still held. The first stage of the battle may be said to have ended on Sunday, 14th April.
Look carefully at the map, and notice the trace of the Allied front north of the La Bassee Canal on that day. From the canal you see the line making a big bulge westward, its southern pivot being at Givenchy, and its northern pivot the northern part of the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge. A straight line between these two points is about twenty miles in length. On 14th April the greatest depth of the salient westward of the line was between seven and eight miles. From Wytschaete to a point on the Ypres Canal, about seven miles north of the ruined city, you see a lesser bulge in the contrary direction. Turn back to the map on page 213, and observe the resemblance between the front which I have just described and that south of the canal. You see a very slight bulge east of Arras, and a very large bulge to the south, between Albert and Noyon. In the south we had fallen back some thirty miles from our original line ; in the north we had retreated less than a third of that distance. Nevertheless, for reasons which I have already stated, the northern retirement was much more dangerous than the southern retirement.
Before I pass on, let me ask you to notice that the enemy had now created two flanks the one to the north of the La Bassee Canal, and the other between Montdidier and Noyon. If he could press northward from the latter flank and southward from the former flank, he would compel us to give up all the country lying between Amiens and Hazebrouck. If he could strike northward between Hazebrouck and Ypres, we should be forced to fall back to the line of the little Aa river, and this would mean giving up Belgium altogether and handing over Dunkirk to the enemy. I have already told you that the capture of Dunkirk would provide the Germans with a submarine base at the northern end of the Strait of Dover, and a position from which his big guns could make Calais too hot for us to use as a port.
Now let us see what happened during the second stage of the battle, which began on Monday, 15th April, the seventh day of the Lys offensive. On that day the fighting was almost entirely on the northern face of the salient. Having captured Neuve Eglise, the enemy now made desperate efforts to capture Bailleul. A correspondent says :
" There is not a man with any long service out here who has not passed through Bailleul scores of times on the way to Armentieres or Kemmel, looking up at its old bell-shaped tower in the great square, surrounded by sixteenth-century houses with Flemish roofs and high dormer windows. Bailleul was a grim old town, with high walls between narrow streets and gray brickwork which looked cold in this northern weather ; but there were friendly people there who knew and welcomed our men, and many of the houses were happy havens in which our soldiers could forget war and enjoy for a little the warmth and kindliness of life, while some musician among them, sitting at the piano in a cosy room among a French family, made cheery music. Thousands of our officers who went forward to the lines about ' Plug-street ' or Wytschaete used to take dinner at the Hotel du Faucon, an old place, not very comfortable or grand within, but where there were good food and good comradeship. . . . And in old Bailleul there were pleasant little teashops where we could pass a happy hour on the way elsewhere, sitting in the courtyards in summer, where flowering plants grew up walls, and pleasant women waited upon us and became our friends. I remember on one day in one such place a group of officers gathered round a little girl, who was an invalid and could not walk, but whose delight was to play tunes on the gramophone to these tall soldiers with mud on them. They were very kind and gentle to this child with her big blue eyes and waxen face.
" Always in the Grande Place of Bailleul there were crowds of men. For three years and more I saw them there in all weathers, with snow on their steel hats or the glare of the sun ; and on the days of battle up in Flanders there was a moving pageant passing through the square a pageant of guns and wagons and mules and men, with pipes for the Scottish troops and brass bands for English troops. The King came here one day, and all the square was lined by fighting men of the Naval Division, and New Zealanders and Australians and Scots, and on the steps of the Town Hall were groups of army nurses. Just outside the town we had an aerodrome belonging to the Royal Naval Air Service, where in hangars and pavilions were as jolly a set of boys as heart of man could hope to meet about the world."
We are now to hear how this town of many happy memories fell into the hands of the enemy. He flung three divisions, including storm troops and a portion of his Alpine Corps, against the place in the endeavour to envelop it. Staffords and Notts and Derbys fought stubbornly ; but the town was smothered with shells, and could no longer be held. At dawn on Tuesday our men slowly fell back. On the morning of that day the German line ran north of Bailleul, along a little brook behind which rises the group of hills which figure so importantly on the map. On that day, too, the enemy made himself complete master of the Messines Ridge. It was clear that, if he could maintain himself upon the summit of this low rise, we should be compelled to flatten out our salient in front of Ypres.
The Germans were soon firmly established on the ridge, and we began to withdraw from the Passchendaele position, which had been carried so gallantly by the Canadians in the late autumn of 1917. You can imagine the reluctance with which our men retreated from the ground which had been won at the cost of so many brave lives. We carried out the withdrawal in an orderly fashion, without losing a man or a gun, on Wednesday, the 17th. A counter-attack was launched at Messines Ridge, and for some hours we were in possession of its northern end. This was done to draw off attention from our withdrawal.
The enemy was slow to follow up our retreat, and hours passed before their forward patrols were seen. Meanwhile our guns were waiting for them. The ground was swept with fire, the outposts were killed, and the enemy's places of assembly were heavily shelled. One need not wonder that the Germans were slow to advance ; for they had to cross a horrible wilderness, pitted with shell craters, filled to the brim with water and liquid mud, and strewn with the wreckage of former battles.
The loss of Messines Ridge not only compelled us to flatten out the Ypres salient, but it gave the enemy an advantage in the attacks which he was about to make on the Kemmel range of hills. From its summit he could overlook, the valley and the slopes of Kemmel Hill. He did not, however, attack the hill directly either on Wednesday or on the seven following days, but struck hard north of the Ypres salient. His object was to smash through between Bixschoote and Poperinghe, and turn the line of the Kemmel hills. Had he done so he would also have turned the line of the Yser, and would have compelled us to retire rapidly both north and south of the river. Dunkirk would then have been uncovered, and our northern forces .would have been in the gravest peril.
Now let us see what happened on this Wednesday, 17th April. Find the Forest of Houthulst on the map (page 220), and notice that on its western side there is a main road leading past Bixschoote to Poperinghe. The Belgians lay astride of this main road in the swampy fields which they had held for three and a half years. In these pages you have heard but little of their doings during this time ; but you must think of them as dourly holding on in spite of almost constant shelling, losing men day by day, yet stubbornly clinging to their positions, almost unnoticed, while battles raged to the south of them. The Germans believed that they could smash through the Belgian line and repeat the success which they had gained against the Portuguese on gth April. So with twenty-one battalions that is, about five men to one yard they made a furious drive against the front of 4,000 yards held by the Belgians.
Our brave Allies were to be taken by surprise, just as the Portuguese had been. In forty-eight hours the assaulting troops were concentrated. They were to carry Bixschoote, cross the Yser Canal, and drive south to Poperinghe. At half-past eight in the morning, without the usual bombardment, the Germans went over the top, and in dense masses swarmed down on the Belgian lines. They broke through to the west of the main road at a point about three thousand yards from the forest, but could make no further headway. Belgian reinforcements were immediately sent up on the right flank of the advancing enemy. They struck up from a place called Luyghem in such a way that the Germans were driven towards a swamp so wet and soft that a man who tried to cross it would sink up to his neck in ice-cold water.
The Germans were trapped, and 700 of them were forced to surrender, while 2,000 others fell never to rise again. The enemy had failed, and failed terribly. By afternoon the whole Belgian line was restored, and the peril had passed for a time. It is said that our gallant allies went into action singing and waving their helmets to the flying men overhead. When the news of the victory was known there was great rejoicing amongst the Allies, not only because a grave danger had been averted, but because the Belgians, after their long inaction, had proved themselves just as staunch and dogged as of old.
On Thursday, the 18th, after the failure recorded above, the Germans turned their attention to the southern face of the salient. A few miles south of the Lys you will see the village of Robecq. The attack which I am about to describe was made between this place and Givenchy. Our line now lay along the bank of the La Bassee Canal, in front of the village of Hinges. On page 221 there is a little map which will help you to understand the position. You notice that our line touched the canal at a place where there was a wood on the northern bank, and a hill, forty feet above the water, on the southern bank. The wood, which is known as Pacaut Wood, comes within two hundred yards of the canal ; and the hill, which is known as Mont Berneuchon, gives observation over the whole country round about. Now look at the village of Hinges. It was a mere hamlet on the south bank of the canal. The road from Merville crossed the water by a bridge called Hinges Bridge, and ran on to Bethune. If the enemy could force the canal at this point, he would be able to turn the stubbornly-held pivot at Givenchy, possess himself of Bethune, and cut the important railway which served our front not only northward to Ypres, but southward to Arras. You can easily see that the capture of Bethune would have been a disaster to the Allies, and would probably have forced them to make a serious withdrawal across the narrow territory between their lines and the coast.
During the night of Wednesday and all day Thursday the enemy kept up a heavy bombardment from Robecq to Givenchy. It was the same kind of bombardment which opened the offensive on 9th April. Gas shells innumerable were flung upon our lines, and dense clouds of poisonous vapour arose. The last five hours of the bombardment proved a terrible ordeal for our men, but they " stuck it " with their usual courage. At four o'clock on the morning of Thursday, before the sun had risen, the enemy sent forward his troops in dense masses. No less than six divisions were hurled during the day upon our lines between Pacaut Wood and Givenchy that is, upon a front of about one and a half miles. At Hinges Bridge the enemy attacked with nine or ten bayonets to every yard. Three divisions assaulted the pivot at Givenchy, on the British right ; while one division attacked at Robecq, in order to hold the troops in that part of the line, and prevent them from reinforcing the danger-point in the centre.
Before dawn four waves of Germans marched out of Pacaut Wood, which gave them but poor cover. Our machine guns had raked them as they were assembling, and now as they came out into the open in the gray twilight they were met with a deadly fire. Nevertheless, the survivors nearly reached the bank of the canal before they broke. Then came a lull of an hour, during which the enemy was re-forming his divisions among the broken trees of the wood.
The second attempt was made by the 239th Division, along the main road to the rear of the wood. This time the bank was reached, and pontoons were thrown across the canal. A correspondent thus describes the fighting on the canal bank :
" Extraordinary scenes took place on the canal bank when the enemy tried to cross in the twilight of early dawn. A party came out of the wood and tried to get across the water ; but the attackers were seen by our machine gunners and were shot down. Then another body of men advanced and carried with them a floating bridge ; but when those who were not hit reached the water's edge, they found that the bridge did not reach to the other side. Some of them walked on to it, expecting, perhaps, to jump the gap ; but they were shot off, and other men on the bank were also caught under our fire. A corporal of ours went down to the canal edge and flung hand grenades at the Germans, still struggling to fix their bridge ; and then a lieutenant and a few men reached down and pulled the bridge to the bank on our side.*
" Later this young officer saw one of our pontoons drifting down the canal. He plunged into the water, and swimming to it, made it fast in a position beyond the enemy's reach. Some of our men ran across it and caught the enemy under their fire on his side of the canal."
During this critical time there was a moment when it seemed probable that the enemy would get across. The fire of the defenders, however, was too much for them, and something like a panic set in. At seven o'clock in the morning they hoisted a white handkerchief, and 300 of them made signs of surrender. Some of them changed their minds at the last moment and ran away, but 150 gave themselves up. So eager were some of these men to surrender that they swam the canal to our side. As it was now broad daylight, those who fled were nearly all destroyed before they reached the edge of the wood, close as it was. Before eight o'clock this second attempt had failed grievously.
Meanwhile, upon the two wings, towards Robecq on the left and Givenchy upon the extreme right, there was a violent struggle which lasted all day. The attack on Givenchy began at four in the morning, and continued until seven, when the Germans drew off after a series of very determined assaults, all of which were repulsed with very heavy loss. In front of Robecq .there were similar efforts to advance, but one and all were completely checked.
On Thursday evening, when the fighting died down, the enemy had nothing to show for his heaps of dead. At no point had he gained a yard of important ground along the line of the canal, and neither at Robecq nor at Givenchy had he shaken the pillars of the sector. Equally vain were his attempts to advance on the northern face of the salient. So heavy had been his losses that during the three following days he was unable to make a serious attack. Our men seized the opportunity which this lull afforded to improve their line in front of Givenchy and Festubert, where a couple of advance posts had been rushed by the enemy two days before.
Though a pause had set in, no one imagined that the enemy would long remain inactive. Six days later he began his great thrust against the range of hills which stood between him and the coast, and once more the Allies had to endure a terrible onset and a period of the gravest anxiety.